We all know the Lord of The Flies cliche about boys being little more than savages beneath a thin veneer of civilization, and anyone who has gone to an all-boys school knows that this is pretty much true. My comprehensive was no different, a pressure-cooker of raging hormones and cruel adolescent power games where the strong mercilessly preyed on the weak, the bookish, the different, the short-sighted.
Not surprisingly our tastes in reading material leaned toward the violent and nasty, and if it had a sprinkling of smut in it too so much the better. There was a sort of underground lending library system at school with certain parent- and teacher-unfriendly books being passed from one kid to another, often with the “good” pages marked for easy reference. Popular reads were Richard Allen’s Skinhead books and Jaws by Peter Benchley, but it was The Rats by James Herbert that was the must-read book we all couldn’t wait to get our hands on. I remember that it had such a cult, talked-about status at school (and a controversial reputation elsewhere), that when I finally got a copy passed to me I felt like I was handling radioactive material and immediately hid it in my Adidas bag until I got home.
Published in 1974, The Rats is a gruesome novel about London being terrorized by giant mutant rats with a taste for human flesh, and is full of lurid descriptions of people being attacked and killed in very, very nasty ways:
But as he stood, one of the larger rats leapt at his groin, pulling away his genitals with one mighty twist of his body. The tramp screamed and fell to his knees, thrusting his hands between his legs as if to stop the flow of blood, but he was immediately engulfed and toppled over by a wave of black, bristling bodies.
As you can imagine we — pardon the expression — ate this up with glee. A tramp had his knob bitten off by a rat! That bloke had his eyes chewed out! They ate a baby! I read it again recently (well, skimmed would be more accurate) and while I wouldn’t exactly call Herbert a good writer he’s an effective and efficient one; the story motors along from one horrific scene to another with no distracting subplots, and the only chapter that doesn’t have any bloody carnage in it has a sex scene instead — x-rated, vividly-described sex of course (chapter eight if you’re interested) — so the book managed to get our adolescent blood pumping into more than one organ. No wonder it we loved it so much, it was if it had been written by a committee set up to produce a book just to satisfy our particular bloody and lusty imaginations.
It’s been claimed that, under the schlocky horror, The Rats is actually a damning portrait of the run-down, dysfunctional state of London — and England — in the 1970s, and reading it again with grown-up eyes I did think that if you took away the killer rats you’d have a social-realist polemic. There are lots of angry references to slum neighbourhoods in the East End, dirty canals, neglected bomb-site wastelands, people living in poorly-built “concrete towers” with stinking rubbish chutes, and at one point the dustmen go on strike forcing the Army to be called in to clear rubbish from the streets which actually happened during the Winter of Discontent in 1979. The rats may have been mutant freaks but the novel makes it clear that they bred and thrived in a city one character curses as “Dirty bloody London!”
So if a teacher had caught me with it and asked me why I was reading such junk, I could have replied “Actually sir, it’s a devastating critique of the social, political, and environmental conditions in London today” — and he probably would have given me a clip ’round the ear and confiscated the book.
Download: Down In The Sewer – The Stranglers (mp3)
Buy: Rattus Norvegicus (album)
Buy: The Rats (book)